comfort zones are so… comfortable

Us humans can talk about pushing boundaries, thinking outside the box, or getting outside of comfort zones all we want. Deep down we know that there is no growth, development, change, or improvement without discomfort. But we hate that. We really do. We want to believe the marketing hype that says change and improvement is easy and effortless and fun.

Picture a cold, wet, stormy winter night and you’re snuggled in a soft, plush, fleecy blanket by the fire while drinking hot chocolate and watching your favorite movie. That’s your comfort zone – it’s all warm, cozy, and oh so gloriously relaxing.

Now, picture that same winter night and your spouse comes into the room and inexplicably yanks the blanket off, turns on all the fans and A/C, and changes the channel. THAT’S what stretching your comfort zone feels like. Not life threatening, just really, really irritating. And we want to fix it immediately and return to our blissful cocoon.

Deep down inside the lizard brain we’re wired to avoid discomfort. It’s a survival trait that goes to the roots of our existence. Hypothermia, starvation, and injury are kind of a big deal when you’re 75,000 years from the nearest heated house, stocked fridge, and health clinic. Pain is a fabulous instructor because it teaches us to not do things that might result in injury, dismemberment, or death.

The problem is, we’re also wired to survive one more day. Our lizard brain only worries about right now, not 20 years out. The mechanisms that keep us from freezing or starving to death don’t work well to protect us from the long term dangers brought about by sloth, overconsumption, or NOT changing with the world. Our bodies are great at telling us to eat, but not so good at telling us to back off; great at teaching us not to stick our hands in the fire, but lousy at encouraging us to seek out new skills, knowledge, and people.

Related to all this, us humans also hate, hate, hate to be denied something we want. It becomes a tickle in the brain that we’re soon obsessing over until we HAVE TO HAVE IT!!!! Again, it’s a great survival trait when our bodies are trying to get us to go hunt something so we can eat for another day, but counterproductive when we’re trying to create long term behavioral change like eating less, saving more, getting up earlier, learning new skills, etc.

The longer we stay in our comfort zone, the more it starts to shrink. We step back from the edge to provide a cushion of comfort and the edge moves inward. So we step back again. Pretty soon we find we’ve trapped ourselves in a very small, very tiny, very restrictive place. And we wonder why our lives and careers aren’t where we want them.

Worse, yet. When faced with danger – physical, emotional, mental – we retreat to what we know. The more uncertain the situation, the more dogmatically and desperately we cling to the things we are certain about. Ironically, the moments we need to change the most are the moments we are most resistant to change.

All of this has huge implications for leading change, training and development, and personal and professional growth. It’s not that we can’t or won’t push on those self-imposed boundaries, it’s just that we’re highly resistant to discomfort.

How often do we put off the diet or fitness or savings plans until “tomorrow”? How often do we delay going back to school or seeking out new training until “the time is right”? How often do we dangerously delay important decisions until we “have more information”? How often do we dismiss new approaches out of hand, preferring to stick to “tried and true” and “best practices”?

What thinks you?


the shop is no longer around the corner

I recently re-watched You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks (to be clear: I didn’t watch it with them, they were in the movie). It came out in 1997 at the cusp of three pivotal shifts and is an interesting look at people dealing with FutureNow and trying to find their way forward without a map.

Email was new and quaint and exciting, big box retailers were driving the small independent shops out of business, and – although the movie doesn’t address it – people and businesses were trying to figure out the whole internet thing by applying old business models to a new medium.

In one scene, Meg Ryan’s character wishes she could ask her deceased mom for advice on how her small bookstore can compete with the mega-store going in just down the street. A friend makes a show out of asking her mom’s picture what to do, holding it to her ear for the answer. The friend puts the photo down and says, “She doesn’t know what to do either.” There was no map, no established answer, no tried and true success model.

Fifteen years later and the big box stores are in the same position Meg Ryan’s cute little shop was in. The internet has evolved into a reliable commerce channel, creating enormous economies of scale AND a level of service that physical stores wouldn’t / couldn’t provide. No store can have enough staff to be familiar with every book, yet the online stores have ratings and comments available from people who have read the book. Online, there is no snobbery from the clerk at the CD store looking upon your musical taste with distain. Prices are low and the option to buy used pushes them even lower.

The bad guy of a decade and a half ago is now the victim. The world changed and no one told them. There is no map, no established answer, no tried and true success model for them to follow.

For better or worse, the world is changing and evolving and moving in faster and faster cycles. We’ve got email figured out and now we’re wrestling with social media. Higher education and banking are likely to take the same sort of leap the music and publishing industries did and others will follow. It doesn’t take much of a futurist to predict that there is another big shift about to happen just a few years down the road.

Here’s the HR / world of work spin: technology is driving massive changes at a societal level, allowing us to do so much more with so much less, eliminating old jobs and creating new opportunities. That’s not going away. It’s scaryexcitingterrifyingthrilling. It requires perpetual learning and thinking and changing and an ability to adapt at an ongoing level that’s never been asked of us before.

Hope, fear, uncertainty, confidence, desire for success, terror of failure are all very real and very human issues. I wonder how Human Resources and Learning & Development will best help individuals and organizations cope-survive-thrive.

Your thoughts?


Some Business and Leadership Lessons from Downton Abbey

I really enjoy Downton Abbey and I’m super excited about the new season. A friend turned me on to it this Fall and my wife and I quickly watched the first two seasons. I really shouldn’t be able to relate to it – after all, it’s a period drama (soap opera?) about British aristocracy and their servants in the early 1900s.

Except it’s not. It’s about humans dealing with the inevitable change of FutureNow. The tried and true traditions of the 19th Century have been blown up and burned down in the onslaught of change in the early 20th Century. Industrialization, automobiles, air travel, women’s rights, democracy, revolutionaries, class systems (and duties and obligations), a world fighting a new kind of war and the horrors it brings all get thrown in the societal blender. The characters, rich or poor, weak or powerful, are just humans trying to find their way and make sense of it all as what was battles what is and what should be.

Kinda like business and leadership today.

Any strength pushed too far becomes a weakness and the best ideas become frightful distortions and caricatures at their limits. Taylorism and scientific management brought much needed consistency and efficiency to manufacturing. But it was pushed to the point of removing all thinking and judgement  Design out the need for critical thought, problem solving, and creativity from the workers and (surprise!) we end up with workers who can’t innovate, who are comfortable with micromanagement, who push responsibility for their results higher in the organization.

Command and control is a self-serving, self-justifying cycle. Create an organization structure and leadership approach that fosters a lack thought, creativity, or innovation and you end up needing an organization structure and leadership approach to manage people who lack thought, creativity, and innovation. And it works. Until it doesn’t.

Right now it really doesn’t. We can argue it does because we’ve never seen an alternative or because we prefer to stick with the devil we know. Doing different is scary, it’s uncertain, we don’t know how it will work out. But ask yourself this: how successful would you be in 1920 trying to lead and live in the world that existed in 1870? How successful will you be in 2013 trying to lead and live in the world the existed in 1963?

Here’s my challenge to the world: name one person, one team, one company that has gained a successful advantage doing things the way they’ve always been done, doing things the way everyone else does them, and gets ahead by running with the herd. Should it be telling that there are no awards for doing sameness better than everyone else?

So why then do we insist on trying to stand out by blending in?


Some Lessons From Downton Abbey:

What are some of the lessons we can take from Downton Abbey as we face our own FutureNow? Some thoughts, in no particular order:

1. Just because it worked in the past doesn’t mean it will work in the future, or even now.

2. Just because it seems to work now doesn’t mean it’s the best solution.

3. Resist it, complain about it, long for the good old days all you want. Change is inevitable and happening regardless of our opinion of it.

4. The changes we resist today will be the traditions the next generation fights to keep. The world we resist and resent today will be someone else’s good ol’ days tomorrow.

5. We’re all just humans trying to figure out how to be happy and successful (however we define happiness and success).

6. No single group of people, gender, generation, race, profession, social class, etc. has a monopoly on all the good ideas. Or all the bad ones.

7. Traditions for the sake of traditions are silly and useless. Traditions that still serve a purpose provide continuity and community. Just because we’ve always done it doesn’t make it useful; just because it’s never been done doesn’t make it useless. AND just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t make it useless; just because it’s never been done doesn’t make it useful.

8. Experience is important, but you’ll never win by preparing to fight the previous war. We need to learn from the past but in a way that recognizes that even small changes will make a big difference.

Your thoughts?



control freakout

Times of great change (now), times of uncertainty (now), and times when yesterday’s formula for success is tomorrow’s expressway to failure (now) cause us humans to feel out of control, insecure, and stressed. It’s hard to know what to do next or move forward with certainty in a world where there aren’t templates and formulas; where you can’t get to where you want to go by just checking the boxes along the way; where the new maps haven’t been created yet.

Disruption is what is. The music, book publishing, and movie industries have changed in ways barely imaginable less than five years ago. Stable, conservative, aeon old industries with long histories are being taken to their foundations, blown up, and rebuilt in amazing ways – even if the practitioners don’t realize it yet. My humble, supersecret prediction is that the industries that have changed the least in the last 50 years will change the most in the next five. The FutureNow is here.

When your business is caught in the maelstrom of change you can choose one of three paths: 1) focus on what you can control; 2) focus on what you can influence; or 3) become the disruptor that creates the change others have to deal with.

The third path is really hard to do because there is a very, very fine line between being the company that goes against the grain and changes the industry and the company that goes against the grain and becomes irrelevant. I really want to focus on the first two choices.

In the past, industries drove change and the pace of change. Now, the ability to access and transmit information faster and faster and cheaper and cheaper means technology, customer demands, and off the radar upstarts are fueling change. There is less and less that we can actually control and more and more we can only influence. I assume it’s like sailing – we can’t control the waves or the wind, only anticipate and ride them. In fact, the more we try to control, the more out of control we get. Paradoxically, the more we go with the flow and focus on influence, the more control we actually have.

But us humans really like to feel in control. We like the feeling of security and certainty that control brings. If we can control it, we can prevent it from harming us. So, in a time of change (read as: time of FEAR) it’s tempting to concentrate on the unimportant things we can control instead of the big, important, and uncertain things we can only influence. Caught in the storm of change we seem to focus on polishing the ship’s brass and mopping the deck rather than anticipating the wind and the waves. Cleaning the ship is completely within our control and makes us feel successful right now, but the ship is adrift and about to sink. The painful paradox is that the more out of control we feel, the more we often try to control, which means we focus more and more on things that matter less and less. It’s an ugly downward spiral

Here are a  few simple questions to help determine whether your company is trying its hardest to influence a new path through the storm or headed for the rocks with the cleanest ship around:

Are you spending your time on principles and experimentation or policy and tradition?

Are you most concerned with finding ways to delight customers or ways to minimize change and disruption?

Are your most passionate and creative people at the helm, relishing the challenge or are they preparing their life rafts while you hand out mops and tins of polish?

There are no guarantees to success and every path is uncertain, but there are no awards for having the cleanest ship at the bottom of the ocean.

Your thoughts?


flashback friday: technology has changed, humanity hasn’t, part 3

[This was originally posted on July 3, 2012]

“Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal. Anything created between birth and the age of 30 is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it. But whatever is invented after you’re turned 30 is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it – until it’s been around for about 10 years, when it gradually turns out to be all right really.”

~ Douglas Adams


“Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: 1) It’s completely impossible. 2) It’s possible, but not worth doing. 3) I said it was a good idea all along.

~ Arthur C. Clarke

i know what i know. do you?

I live out in the country and drive the same route to work every morning and, depending on who is getting which of our kids, drive the same route home at least three evenings a week plus multiple times on the weekend.

I know this route.

Except that the other day I noticed that a section of road that I would have sworn was 60mph wasn’t. What? No, it has to be 60mph. I know it is because I routinely grumble that the speed limit is too slow for that particular road.

I don’t know this route.

When did the speed limit change? When did it get raised to 65? Don’t know. It could have been over the weekend. Or, more likely, it was raised about a year ago when a connecting section of road also had its speed limit raised.

I know the answer yet I don’t. I only think I do. It changed when I wasn’t paying attention. I’ve been living by old rules and circumstances, unaware that they no longer apply. Unaware that I’ve been holding myself back.

The speed limit is a pretty minor thing. Yet, I have the opportunity to see the new rules daily. There is the immediate feedback of cars passing me that might cause me to question what I know, but never did. How much else that I know to be true might now be outdated. Incorrect. Wrong.

If it took so long to change a superficial belief system about HOW THINGS ARE despite all the contrary evidence, how long would it take me to change what I believe about topics I really care about?

What do you know that you don’t know?

So, how’s your diversity and inclusion initiative going?

How convinced are you that you really know the skills and experience required to succeed in that position you’re trying to fill?

What new technologies might make your job easier?

What are the top three actions you need to take this year to succeed in your own job?

Are you sure?

I know what I know. What do you know? What are the odds we might be wrong?

innovation is disruption

“What do the most successful companies do? They innovate. We need to start innovating immediately. Form an innovation committee and get going!”

At least, that’s how I imagine it going at a lot of companies. Everyone is all abuzz about innovation and the need for it, but I’m not convinced they completely understand it. I get the sense that so many think of innovation as more of the same, only better. But it’s not. Innovation is disruption.

Innovation is disruption. It goes against the status quo. It’s not how we do things around here. It’s not the way we always done it. It goes against how the average – normal – company does it.

Innovation = disruption. It causes worry and consternation. People oppose it. It’s change. It’s different. It’s weird. It’s messy. It causes problems.

Innovation is disruption. It takes time for people to try it out, to understand it, to appreciate it. It brings out the naysayers. It causes whining, complaining, screaming, and shouting. Terror and temper tantrums.

Innovation = disruption. It is uncomfortable. It slows things down while people go through the learning curve. It feels unnatural – it’s not what we’re used to.

Innovation is disruption. It’s new. It’s unknown. It’s untested and unproven. It’s value may take years to be understood.

Innovation = disruption. It’s a risk. It may take failure after failure before success. It may not pan out. It may make people look foolish if they support it and no one else does.

Innovation is disruption. It’s being out in a place where no one else is. It might pay off (big) or it might fizzle out. Some ideas are ahead of their time, others are simply different yet not better.

Innovation = disruption. But disruption is not always innovation. Innovation can cause trouble, but not all trouble makers are innovators.

Innovation is disruption. We say we want innovation and then our actions support status quo. We want the (perceived and false) safety of the known with all the wild upside of the new. But when push comes to shove and people start looking for someone to blame, Sameness is the corporate value that gets supported. The manager says, “I want you to take risks, but you better be right.”

Innovation = disruption. It means stepping away from the Known. Innovation ALMOST NEVER COMES FROM EXPERTS. Experts are really good at the Way Things Are and not so good at the Way Things Could Be.

You want innovation? Seek other perspectives. Bust up routines. Stop trying to “innovate” and start looking for better answers. Find solutions that no one else is doing. Create products and services that are better at solving your customer’s problems. Give unexpected value. Show that you have really thought it through.

You want still innovation? Develop an open mind and a thick skin. Poke. Prod. Change. Be Different. Put on your emotional flak jacket and get ready for the hate, the doubt, the ridicule. It just might be worth disrupting things.

stuck in yesterday: why is change so hard?

“You can’t get to who you’re meant to be tomorrow clinging to who you were yesterday.” ~ Robin Sharma (@_robin_sharma)

We want different results. We want to be a better leader, better networker, better at communication, better at managing our time, better, better , better. So we take classes and we read books and we get excited about the possibilities. It all sounds like it could really work and we can’t wait to get started.

And then…

We don’t. We don’t change. We wonder what’s wrong with ourselves. Why can’t we do this? Why is change so difficult?

Lots of reasons, really. Two of the biggest barriers are simply habit and our routines.

We have spent a lifetime building the habits that support our status quo. Twenty, thirty, forty plus years of habit rarely change after a class or a book. It rarely changes after a week of intense focused effort. It takes much more time and effort to truly replace one habit with another to the point where the new habit is completely reflexive.

We have also completely and entirely set up our lives to support us EXACTLY as we are right now. Our routines, processes, physical environment, etc. are all perfectly designed to maintain things just as they are. As an example, something as simple as eating healthier would probably require shopping differently – buying different food from different sections of the store, maybe even shopping a different store. Then it would likely require changing your routine so you had time to plan and prepare a day’s worth of food and snacks. Do you do it the night before, get up earlier, spend most of Sunday making meals for the week? And so on. None of it is impossible – it’s all pretty simple stuff – but if we don’t plan for it and realize that we need to change the routines that support our habits then pretty soon we’re eating fast food and snacking out of the vending machines again.

Or, if I truly want to become a better leader or better in my job, then I’ll need to create time to study, plan, think, reflect. I’ll need to seek feedback, evaluate it, and modify my plans accordingly. I’ll need to either invent extra time during the day (time is finite, so what am I going to give up?) or get better at time management or change my priorities and focus. It’s all completely possible and may not even be that hard, but it will require changing up routines and habits.

Personal change isn’t as easy as the infomercials suggest, but recognizing the difficulties and preparing for them makes it that much easier to avoid staying stuck in yesterday.

technology has changed, humanity hasn’t… part 3

“Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal. Anything created between birth and the age of 30 is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it. But whatever is invented after you’re turned 30 is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it – until it’s been around for about 10 years, when it gradually turns out to be all right really.”

~ Douglas Adams


“Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: 1) It’s completely impossible. 2) It’s possible, but not worth doing. 3) I said it was a good idea all along.

~ Arthur C. Clarke